DENVER (AP) - Thousands of Colorado children who qualify for free preschool won't be going when classes start this month because of state budget shortfalls.
Though precise data isn't kept on the number of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds who are denied access, The Denver Post reported Sunday that preschool during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year with state estimates, 17 percent of eligible 4-year-olds weren't able to attend.
The Colorado Department of Education estimated that as many as 12,010 4-year-olds who were considered to be at-risk because of economic and social conditions had no preschool available to them.
State education officials said an increase of 3,200 slots this school year for children in preschool and kindergarten is expected to offer some relief but not enough.
"There's unmet need out there in that there are kids who would benefit, that is kids who are needy and at-risk, who don't currently have access to slots," Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said.
The preschool funding shortfall is a major plank of a campaign to ask voters this fall to hike income taxes nearly $1 billion a year to fund education upgrades. If voters agree, the income cap would be removed so that all eligible children can have access to pre-kindergarten. The money would also be used to implement statewide full-day kindergarten, to enhance services for needy students and those learning English, among other changes.
At-risk children in Colorado who attend preschool perform better on the state's standardized tests than children with similar backgrounds who do not attend preschool, according to a 2013 legislative report produced by the Colorado Department of Education. The report suggests that both groups fall below statewide averages, but the gap is greater for those who did not attend preschool.
"We have a lot of kids who show up for school for the very first time who are on dramatically unequal footing from their white or middle-class peers," Garcia said. "It's really unrealistic to expect that the K-12 system can fix all that by itself. We know that if we can do a better job of preparing these kids when they enter kindergarten, they'll be more likely to be able to keep up with their more privileged peers."
State lawmakers started the Colorado Preschool Program in 1988 as part of an effort to "curb dropout rates, help children achieve their full potential, reduce dependence on public assistance, and decrease susceptibility to criminal activities."
To qualify, children must come from low-income families or meet other criteria that includes a history of abuse or neglect in their family, homelessness, foster care, parents who did not graduate from high school, parental substance abuse or having a teen parent.
State lawmakers have capped the number of children who can be served by the Colorado Preschool Program at 20,160, or 29 percent, of the state's 4-year-olds. As a result, demand for the program generally exceeds the available slots, leaving districts with long waiting lists and the difficult task of telling parents that they do not have the space for their children.
Rebecca Behrendt was one of those parents. When the former middle school teacher moved from Nebraska with her family three years ago, the last thing she expected was how stressful it would be to find a preschool for her son, Henry.
"Henry was 2½ and it was the summertime," Behrendt said. "I wasn't thinking about it until I ran into another mom and she said, 'You'll be on this wait list and this wait list.' I think I was more nervous for his preschool applications than I was for my college applications."
Jefferson County, the state's largest school district, had 2,529 children enrolled in its preschool program during the 2012-13 school year. About 814 children who were on a waiting list did not get into a preschool program in the district.
"As educators, we feel sad, but the current reality in Colorado is that it's not possible to place every child in a classroom," said Marcella Hoefner, the director of early-childhood programs in the Jefferson County School District.
The Colorado Department of Education calculates the unmet need for pre-K with help from districts who self-report waiting lists, state pupil counts and additional data from the state demography office.
Education officials said those estimates consider only at-risk 4-year-olds who are eligible for the state-funded preschool, not all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state. The estimates also do not account for children who may already be in private preschool or in a high-quality day care that serves as a preschool.
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